On the Processes of Data and Affect
NC State University
Citation: Hammond, Randall. “On the Processes of Data and Affect.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 22, 2020. doi:10.20415/hyp/022.r01
Keywords: Affect Theory, Datalogical Turn, Big Data, Political Economy.
Patricia Ticineto Clough, The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media, and Measure. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 240pp.
That vibe, that feel, that tingle on the back of your neck when you walk into a room and instinct speaks up. Tells you to run or hide or freeze.
It’s a familiar kind of sensation.
Each time I pick up Patricia Clough’s book I feel that tingle, let alone when I start to read. When I read, the tingle is a shaking and a fear, and a breath I can’t catch. It feels like every missed deadline and every harsh word and every hour of therapy, wrapped together in this thing that knows me better than I do.
Clough’s The User Unconscious is simultaneously an academic text and an artist’s statement on the individual and the universal in affect studies. Which individuals, what kinds of individuals, and how those individuals interact as interpolated data points drives her text, with a focus on how the processes of big data speak back to the practices of psychoanalysis and sociology.
As you read this sentence, the individual moments and movements that led you here are being analyzed, tracked and incorporated into several databases of choices. Your choices, from the web browser to the search engine and term, to the amount of time spent on this screen instead of on your alt-tabbed screen, each represent another data point that we, as users of technology, are less equipped to understand than the technology itself. Ultimately, this is the point of Clough’s book. The processes and analyses allowed by big data offer a window into the affective preconditions that make us split our screen time or put down a block of text in favor of “fail” videos. Attention, political alignment, gender, race, sexuality, power and socioeconomics all tie in to the quantification of personality and personhood, which Clough calls “the Datalogical Turn.” What that turn affords makes this book a valuable resource to anyone interested, but especially to sociologists, critical theorists and computer scientists.
One of the biggest challenges in affect studies is simply saying what it is. Demonstration and example pervade in the variously-authored pieces from other sources that purport to “unify” or explicate affect studies. Clough follows both lines, complete with coverage of work from Hardt and Negri, with their emphasis on liberatory politics, to Galloway’s affective capture of potential via digital platforming and Massumi’s traps of political economy. Clough’s specific applications of affect theory track with some of the most exciting modern applications of affect by others, which makes the legwork she does on definition clearer and more accessible.
The first chapter, authored with Goldberg, Schiff, Weeks and Willse, provides a series of notes on the distinction between affective or immaterial labor, along with the political dimensions associated, and what they call “affect-itself,” as conceptually derived through Bergson and Spinoza via the translations and readings by Deleuze. Clough makes clearer the distinction between the religious and philosophical roots of affect studies, in the capacity of bodies to influence other bodies based on the traditional affectus, and the more political and psychological dimensions of modern affect studies. As complex and old as these original sources of affect as concept may be, the progression of Clough’s notes helps simplify and clarify what, for instance, the influence of observation at the quantum level tells us about how observation is in and of itself an influence on a set of circumstances. These notes serve well as both an introduction to the rest of the text and as a guidebook for when the reader inevitably loses their way.
Each research chapter follows similar complex issues, but correlates directly to the notes given in the first. This means there is always a system of support, or a sort of backup. Gendering in national and personal security, the quantification of race, the breakdown in the ideological and methodological distinctions between quantitative and qualitative work, and even the “simple” question of which bodies read and are read, all present opportunities for scholars of different backgrounds to read and to understand.
Reading all of the chapters, for this reason, may not be the best approach. At least, not reading them directly and in order. Finding the best and most personally applicable content is the best way to approach this book. From there, the background can serve as a backbone to understand the rest. This is in itself a reflection of affect theory.
If this book delivers on anything, it is in supplying a strong and useful definition of affect theory, backed up by a comprehensive reading list on the subject and its controversies. Clough does a lot of work on explaining both theory and application, especially as they concern the distinctions between physiological, philosophical and political applications.
Clough perhaps does her best work in regards to the philosophical underpinnings of affect. The chapters alternate between explanatory and demonstrative research projects, undertaken with researchers in each respective field, and short evocative poetry and personal artistic statements. Through this structure, Clough is able to cement the definitions expressed clearly in the data-driven chapters by evoking affect itself as a support.
One of the challenges of affect is baked into its benefits and utility as an approach to doing research. That is, the subjectivity afforded by affect results in some possible pitfalls. If a book is to be useful as a tool to do effective research it has to affect you in the reading. I cannot be sure for everyone who reads, but this book hit home for me. If the most important part of a text on affect is the capacities it opens up for humans, then Clough is more than successful. By integrating personal narrative and poetry, she made this book more digestible and more human, which is ultimately the point.
My comments thus far must come with a strong caveat. The User Unconscious is a challenge to read. Each poem and personal narrative tackles substantive issues that could easily carry trigger warnings. There is little to do in preparation for reading a text where the subject matter shifts from big data analytics of race to the affective qualities of the Rosary and the driving need to pray away sin so the abuse will stop. It’s the curse of studying difficult subjects, that difficult passages and pain become primary to the work.
In the interest of following the author’s example, I must acknowledge that every personal statement, every poem drove me to drop the book. It called back traumas and personal pains, more so than any text I’ve read. In this way, Clough’s work is a success, but there is not really a way for me to know whether that success is universal or deeply, tragically personal.
If the most important part of a text on affect is the capacities it opens for bodies other than humans, in what they say and how they express themselves, then Clough offers us the best way forward she can, in that she gives us a way to read human subjectivity through digital eyes while maintaining something of that subjective within the self. Do the pervasive trigger warnings of digital culture carry with them traces of over sensitivity, or of PTSD, or of both? Do the stories of abuse online “click” with readers due to a shared, cultural experience of abuse or because of a shared experience of deluded self-importance? Does the cultural construct of race carry along with it the physiological markers of trauma, based on cultural treatment and reflecting the stereotypes associated with skin color and with background?
All in all, the concerns I’ve raised did little to keep me from engaging with this text, though they did more to keep me from reading it quickly. That is the best way to approach the book, though. Take it slowly. Digest and slowly, slowly comprehend. So long as the reader is prepared, does not expect to finish quickly, and is willing to stop for a while when a section hurts a little too much, this is an exceptional text.
- See Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, “Value and Affect,” Boundary 2 26, no. 2 (1999): 77-88; Negri, “Multitude: war and democracy in the age of empire,” Multitudes 4 (2004): 107-117; Alexander R. Galloway, The interface effect, Polity, 2012; and Brian Massumi, Semblance and event: Activist philosophy and the occurrent arts, MIT press, 2011.
- See Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3-7; and Spinoza: practical philosophy, City Lights Books, 1988.